A cartoon Mark Horvath walks onto the screen wearing jeans and a brown sport coat. He addresses the camera calmly and introduces himself; he’s the man most people know primarily as @hardlynormal on Twitter. What they may not know is that Mark was once homeless, living on the streets, and just barely getting by in shelters. “Trust me,” the animated Mark laughs as a three dimensional globe materializes above him and begins to spin, “at first, I thought Twitter was dumb, but social media has transformed my life.” And he knows that it will help many other lives as well, which is why he created the site where this introductory video can be found: www.wearevisible.com , a social media literacy site that focuses on the homeless. The website acts as an instructional resource for anyone who wants to learn the increasingly powerful tools of email, blogging, accessing widespread communities, and yes, even Tweeting.
These days, it’s easy to take the internet for granted. Should we want to know when the next bus will arrive or what time a store closes, the internet can tell us the answer before the question even takes form. There is a world of information at our fingertips. Horvath sees the potential of this phenomenon as a vehicle for powerful social change.
We Are Visible is, most importantly, a way to give a voice to the so often voiceless. For Horvath this hits especially close to home. “At my first homeless shelter, they sent us out for labor trafficking. You know, feed a bum all day, you can work ‘em. We all screamed loud, but nobody listened. That was 15 years ago.”
Just this past April, women at Washington, D.C.’s Family Emergency Shelter were victims of the sexual misconduct of employees of the shelter. One of the accused employees was even a shelter security guard. It is hard to imagine how powerless those women felt when they were made victims in the only place where they could find food and shelter. Horvath asks, “What if they had power to scream about it? What if they had the power that we all take for granted? That’s social media.”
Even aside from heading off injustice and crime, the internet can add an element of security and convenience just to the daily life of a homeless person. “Right now, if you’re a homeless person, you have to take a bus, find some agency, then sit there for several hours and get data in, because that’s how the agency gets paid. You go through the whole process just to be put on a waiting list or even to be turned away. If you’re lucky, you get bus tokens, otherwise you have to panhandle your way back to the park where you’re living.” But what if you could log onto the computer and be able to access those exact same services? According to Horvath, who is a veteran of the wonders of web communication, “It would save time, it would save money, and eventually, it would save lives.”
Horvath has experienced the benefits firsthand. “Early on, I was working as a case manager and we sent somebody to get a job in a different town. We paid for his Amtrak ticket, had everything lined up. He got off the Amtrak and he was mugged. He had nothing. It was winter time, Seattle, below thirty degrees. The shelters were all filled up. I felt powerless and I didn’t know what to do, so I went to Twitter. Someone from Twitter actually went over and gave him a hundred bucks. Somebody I didn’t even know.”
Because Horvath reached out to a borderless community of goodhearted people and found help, the man was able to get a hotel room for the night and make it to his destination. To Horvath, this story is not unique. More and more people are using the perpetual conversation of the World Wide Web to reach out, making it easier to match cases of need with the resources that can help. This is what Horvath refers to as “Virtual Case Management” and he cites it as one of the primary goals of the website.
So how can homeless people even access websites like Twitter, Gmail, Facebook and WordPress? According to Horvath, because of the recession and the rapid increase in job loss, more and more homeless people are technologically educated. Homeless people may be without a car or apartment, but many do have internet-enabled cell phones or even laptops. Those who are not as lucky can access the internet in several other ways. Some have even texted Horvath directly so that he will update Twitter with the information for them. Anyone can access public computers in local libraries, where the homeless can always use a shelter address to sign up for a card. Also, most established homeless shelters have computer learning stations. According to Horvath, “These days you need an email address for everything. You can’t apply for a job without the internet.” Once a person finds some way to get online, whether it’s a phone, laptop, or public computer, they can just type www.wearevisible.com into the address bar, and We Are Visible’s instructional videos will walk them through all the necessary steps to set up various accounts.
The idea for this site came from Horvath’s work on invisiblepeople.tv. Mark travels around America filming homeless stories, then airs the videos which are not filtered by advocacy experts or altered by marketing executives. They are just stories told straight to the camera by real people who are truly in need.
We Are Visible is made for any computer. If someone is using a computer without speakers, they can print a readout of the instructions. The site is intended for people seeking help, those establishments that provide help, and for “people who have a heart and want to care, join, watch, listen, and get involved.” Horvath invites all people to come on and just say, “How are you? How’s your day going?” The internet helps to bridge the gap of alienation that the homeless feel as they are passed by on the streets without so much as a glance or a hello.
Horvath’s long term goals for the site are simple: www.wearevisible.com will grow and evolve depending on the ways people use it. It may eventually have more tutorials, things like “How to Build a Resume”, etc. It may become more of its own community to foster conversation and social progress. Mark contends that the shift to social media among the displaced is going to happen no matter what, even if homeless agencies balk at the shift. He knows from his own work as an advocate and community activist that homeless people are already on social media and their presence there is growing. He claims that all he is doing is expediting the inevitable.
At the end of the video, Horvath points as the letters that spell out We Are Visible appear one by one to his left. “We’ll learn about each other,” he assures, “and I believe we’ll effect real, positive change.” If Horvath’s tireless leadership is any indication of the trend, this change has already begun.
All people using social media websites should remember to keep safety in mind. Nothing posted to the internet is truly private, not even a “personal” message. Information about your whereabouts or other sensitive matters should only be shared with discretion.